Guarantano threw two third-quarter touchdown passes for the lead that the Volunteers’ defense preserved with a late goal-line stand as Tennessee rallied past Kentucky 17-13 on Saturday night.
Trailing 13-3 at halftime, the Volunteers (5-5, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) replaced Brian Maurer with Guarantano at quarterback to start the third and quickly got two TD drives totaling just 6 ½ minutes. Receivers had little room for error on both scores, with the second requiring a second look.
Officials initially ruled Josh Palmer out of bounds on his 12-yard catch from Guarantano before replay review showed he got a foot down inbounds on the right sideline on the go-ahead score. His TD followed Marquez Callaway’s fine 17-yard TD grab that capped a 75-yard drive covering just 2:57.
“Some of the throws were there and we made a change and obviously we were better there,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “We didn’t change any calls. We executed better.”
That says a lot about the growth of Guarantano, a junior who made 22 starts for Tennessee before being benched earlier this season for Maurer.
He took heat for a fumble in a loss against Alabama. He broke a bone in his left (non-throwing) hand in a win over South Carolina.
Guarantano had no turnovers or injuries this time, just pinpoint accuracy that the Vols needed. Teammates surrounded him at game’s end.
“Happy I am able to get on a roll and the team is on a roll,” Guarantano said. “It doesn’t make a difference as long as we are winning. I don’t care if I’m coming first, third or fourth (quarter).”
Added Pruitt: “He knows what we are trying to do. He’s smart. He did a great job tonight and has done a great job throughout the year. He’s a guy that wanted to play well tonight and did.”
The Wildcats got a final chance after Marquan McCall recovered Ty Chandler’s fumble at the Tennessee 45 and drove to the 1. But quarterback Lynn Bowden was tackled for no gain on fourth-and-goal at the 2 with 1:17 remaining, the last of Kentucky’s three failed fourth-down attempts after halftime.
“An extremely disappointing loss,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “It comes down to a goal-line stand. Our players fought extremely hard. You come up a yard short and it’s a very, very difficult, tough pill to swallow.”
Tennessee was outgained 327-296 but topped Kentucky 160-129 in the second half to win for the fourth time in five games and reach .500. The Vols are within a win of bowl eligibility after missing the postseason last year.
Gaurantano completed 7 of 8 passes for 115 yards and rushed six times for 30 yards. Maurer was 7 of 16 for 98 yards. Callaway had four catches for 103 yards.
The Wildcats (4-5, 2-5 SEC) took the initial lead with touchdown runs by A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke of 2 and 22 yards respectively but were shut out after that. A missed extra point on Smoke’s TD loomed large, forcing Kentucky to go for a touchdown late instead of possible tying field goal.
Kentucky drove deep into Tennessee territory in the second quarter before Vols cornerback Nigel Warrior intercepted Bowden and returned it 24 yards. The Vols punted, but there went the Wildcats’ opportunity to pad their lead.
Their final drive ended with Bowden wrapped up by Daniel Bituli (19 tackles) as he rolled right with running back Christopher Rodriguez trailing for a possible pitch.
“Coach wanted to put it in my hands and have the option to pitch it or turn the corner,” said Bowden, who rushed 26 times for 114 yards. “I thought I had a seam if I take one less step and hit it then. I put that on me.”
Tennessee: That 1-4 start is now a distant memory. Down but not out, the Volunteers found a spark after halftime with the veteran Guarantano. Their defense was even more impressive in bottling up Kentucky for the final three quarters and making three fourth-down stops.
Kentucky: After opening the game with a clock-chewing, 75-yard TD drive of 10:18 and getting another TD off a blocked punt, the Wildcats stalled offensively. They also failed to slow the Vols, falling under .500 and adding urgency to their quest for bowl eligibility.
Tennessee visits Missouri on Nov. 23 after a bye.
Kentucky visits Vanderbilt on Nov. 16.
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